Each year I set out to provide an overview of changes and trends in the admissions landscape to help understand the policies and practices at play that can influence the strategies to employ and decisions my students might make as part of their college planning.
Trends discussed in this blog post from last year continue. Here are some details that stand out from what I saw during this most recent cycle for the graduating class of 2023.
More Students Applying to STEM Fields; Colleges Introducing New Interdisciplinary Majors
For more than twenty years, colleges have been responding to the public and private demand for highly qualified people with solid-subject matter expertise and technological abilities by expanding the size and expertise of faculty in STEM fields, creating strong STEM-based academic pathways, and investing in ultra modern engineering, maker spaces, hands-on lab facilities, and technology learning centers. You can read more on this in my recent blog post.
More Students Apply to More Colleges
University of California: The University of California application numbers are hovering around the same number as last year, but applications had already significantly increased during the pandemic when the UCs became SAT/ACT test free. Students who are admitted tend to be in the top of their class in rigor of coursework, grades, community engagement, and leadership roles and/or have pursued a special talent very intentionally over an extended period of time. The UCs have an expressed goal of supporting first gen and low income students who have shown they can succeed in the demanding academic environment. In fact, more than 40% of UC admits this past cycle were first gen or low income.
Common Application Colleges: The Common Application makes it fairly easy for a student to apply to multiple colleges because the basic elements of the application can be re-used for each college application. Supplemental portions of the application allow colleges to tailor additional details they wish to collect and/or supplemental essays each college requires students submit. These short-answer questions and essay prompts are a key way that students can demonstrate interest and fit and are used by colleges to assess a student’s match for their community.
University of Washington-Seattle and UT Austin both used the Common App for the first time this year and their application numbers grew notably because it was easier for students to submit an application through Common App than open an entirely new application portal and complete it for only one school, as required in prior years.
The University of Southern California, which offered Early Action with a November 1 deadline for the first time this year, reported receiving 40,000 applications in the early round and then another 40,000 applications during the Regular Decision cycle. Their goal is to enroll just 3,400 students.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison received 45,000 early applications, a 10 percent increase over 2022. This came on the heels of over enrollment last year when their yield was higher than expected.
The Common App Group has done some interesting data analysis to discover that increases in the overall number of applications a student submits is higher when:
- students submit SAT/ACT scores,
- when they apply ED, and
- when they apply to private colleges.
My observation is that these are students who often overapply to “highly rejective” colleges. That’s why I work with students to engage in defining what makes a good fit for them and to curate and cultivate a balanced list of colleges they love. We want them to feel confident putting forth a reasonable number of strong applications (8-12, the UC and CSU apps each counting as one).
Increase in the Percentage of Students Admitted During the Early Decision Round
Students who apply Early Decision have a much higher chance of admission. With a binding agreement to accept an offer of admission a student might receive, colleges value Early Decision applicants because this pool of applicants are (pretty close to) guaranteed to attend, if admitted. (Remember the all important yield factor?)
As I’ve previously shared, this provides an outsized advantage for students who can confidently apply ED. Students interested in waiting out admissions results, from one or more of the UC campuses and other colleges who release decisions in the late winter or spring, or wanting to first compare the cost of attendance where they are accepted, often have a significantly lower rate of admission if applying with the non-ED decision group. This is part of the trend that is making colleges less predictable in who they will accept and students more uncertain of their future admissions outcomes.
Rise in the Cost of Attendance; Some Schools Continue Significant Merit Scholarships
With no financial aid or merit scholarships, the Cost of Attendance inches up each year. To give you a sense of the full sticker price, these are current ballpark figures by school that include the annual estimated costs for tuition, fees, room and board on campus in 2022:
Cal State University: $34,000
University of California: $40,000
University of Wisconsin-Madison: $56,000
Loyola University Chicago: $65,000+
University of San Diego: $76,000+
Some colleges, such as Loyola Chicago and Oberlin among others, continue to offer significant merit scholarships to more than half of admitted applicants applying with strong academic records and extracurricular engagement (the average merit scholarships awarded at these schools, for example, is around $20,000/year).
Others such as Northeastern, Boston University, USC, Amherst, Barnard and the more selective colleges in desirable locations, or with admittance rates under 20%, offer very little to no merit awards. They have moved to using their financial resources to bolster their financial aid programs for students demonstrating financial need and to diversify their incoming freshman cohort.
Out of state public universities in the Western U.S. who participate in the Western University Exchange (WUE) make their campuses a bit more affordable to some California residents by offering tuition rates 1.5x their resident rate to students with a strong academic profile. For a student who qualifies, this can bring the cost of attendance to a school, like Colorado State University-Fort Collins, down to a similar overall annual price point as a CA-resident student attending one of the UC campuses.
Expansion of Campus Locations and Varied Start Dates
One way that some colleges are trying to accommodate more students is to expand their existing campus footprint or to develop new facilities in other locations. They are also partnering with other universities to offer degree-earning coursework at home and abroad. And still yet, another creative approach is to stagger the semester when students first enroll or when they attend classes.
Northeastern has been a good case study to follow where students have traditionally studied abroad and spent time outside of Boston for co-op work experiences. I recently heard a lot of chatter in my counselor networks: students admitted to NU this past cycle were offered a number of locations and start dates. In fact, one of my students attending Northeastern as a freshman this fall will spend the first semester with the N.U.in program in Berlin, before settling into the Boston campus in the second semester. Another student who chose Boston University last year began his first semester in January and will do his second semester over the summer at their program in London. In other news, Loyola Marymount University has started offering a small group of students who are not eligible for freshman admission the option to successfully attend one year of community college and then be admitted.
Smaller campuses are investing in partnerships, such as the Five College Consortium, where students at Smith or Hampshire and other nearby colleges can take courses toward their degrees at other colleges.
Also, of great interest: Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo released a plan to prepare over the next few years to transition from quarters to semesters by Fall 2026. This includes a discussion of expanding enrollment to take full advantage of the campus facilities with students attending during the summer semester.
I expect to see more colleges innovating new ways to serve more students and increase access to changing models of higher education.
Drop in the Percentage of Students Admitted to the Most Selective Schools
This is a natural consequence of the increased applications and little to no increase in the number of spaces available. In some cases, colleges actually reduce their number of admitted students if:
- their overall yield has gone up (more students accepting offers),
- changes in staffing and offerings reduce enrollment for certain majors, and
- to self-correct for prior years when colleges over enroll.
Another way to think about the current state of the admissions landscape in highly selective colleges is shared in this statement by a Princeton Alum involved in their admissions process:
“All the students here are talented and accomplished people who fully deserve their places on campus. But they are also lucky people, because each year we must say “no” to thousands of comparably excellent students who are equally deserving of admission.”
Manage the College Admissions Process with Fit in Mind
These trends underscore the value of self-exploration and being open-minded and engaged along the way. Doing so will help students get to know themselves better and hone in on their personal preferences and fit factors to identify good fit colleges that together form a balanced list of colleges to apply to. That’s why I encourage my students to cultivate their SAFE set of criteria: Size/Setting, Academics, Financial, & Extracurricular Experiences, while recognizing that there are likely many colleges that would make a great choice.
My experience with my own three kids and working with many college-bound students over the years has taught me that there is not only one “dream” school, but rather several colleges and universities, or professional training programs, where students can pursue their goals and thrive. As the apt adage goes, it’s not the name or prestige of the school that matters, but what students make of the opportunities available to them wherever they go.